Let’s just say it: This section of Onegin is kinda weird.
First we have the exhausting look within Eugene’s closet. Centuries before the Internet, Pushkin shows us how rad Onegin’s Instagram would have been… That or his YouTube channel. You get the point.
From here we proceed to what many have called the foot fetish section of Pushkin’s classic (see, dear God I dare you, here).
So what then are we to discuss in this post? There’s so much out on the surface. What more could be hiding there for us to dissect?
Shall I try letting words paint pictures, so you might see the hidden room?
1:23 (Douglas Hofstadter)
As our translator of the month hints, there is far more to see.
Here are just a few reasons why these verses matter:
All this, at eighteen years of age, adorned the sanctum of our sage.
1:23 (Stanley Mitchell)
This line from Mitchell is pregnant. Onegin’s room of brushes, clippers, perfumes and knicknacks is his “sanctum.” This is his safe place. All this calculation. All this control. All in the hands of a man who is, at this moment, eighteen.
Now, eighteen in the nineteenth century was different than it was when I was a child (when eighteen year olds were worthless and lazy superchildren, see….. me), and it’s different too than that age is today (when eighteen year olds can run start-ups and change the world, see Ziad Ahmed).
Still, eighteen years is not a lot of time to have collected experiences, and no matter one’s power, there still may be lessons left to learn.
The wisdom we see from Eugene in later chapters, the depth of his anger and sadness, none of these belie a mere eighteen year old. And yet that’s what he was.
How will the story be driven by his youthful vitality? How will it be driven by an impatience that begs us wonder just to where Onegin was rushing at so early an age? All this shall be revealed later.
The Prison of Superficiality
These verses, both in and out of Eugene’s room, connects us to the value Eugene places on things. It seems cliche, but one who relies so heavily on objects is far less likely to have found security in himself, much less others.
How will this, the collecting of things, affect our tale? A dance with Olga, and an ultimate dismissal, seem to argue that this theme matters much.
At first, we have the dressing closet. From there we travel to the ball. Where before he collected brushes, he now collects attention.
He’s fashionably late (1:28) and yet becomes bored when not noticed (1:36).
There’s such repetition in his routine (shock, right?), and one wonders to what extend Onegin is the architect of his own future dissatisfaction.
Longing and Powerlessness
The chapter closes with… well… with the feet section mentioned above. Still, beyond the fetish which Pushkin and I most certainly do not share, there is Onegin’s trademark longing.
This is the color of the tale. (This is why Pride and Prejudice doesn’t even compare to Eugene Onegin.)
Onegin is a miserable tale. It is a slow-motion walk to heartbreak.
It defined a genre. It defined a nation. And all that starts in the first chapter of this masterpiece.
And about those feet… Beyond the obvious podophilic themes throughout the end of this section, there is a lot being said about why these feet affected Pushkin so.
It’s where they walked. It’s how they navigated terrain both soft and difficult. It’s the forbidden, and how that excites the author who by this time could already have had anything he wanted. (Anything.)
Many are the instances from which greater depth can be mined, but we leave with this moment of gut-wrenching beauty.
I recall some storm-brewing ocean: Jealous, I watched its waves that beat a path straight toward her in devotion, to swirl in sequence at her feet. To join those waves, my soul was burning … [Never before] was my young heart ever so sharply torn apart.
1:33 (Douglas Hofstadter)
Why do the waves charge towards our feet? Because they must. Because they must. But as soon as they arrive, they retreat once again, so powerless is this most powerful of natural elements.
Let’s keep this scene in mind. A powerless hero left begging at the feet of his beloved… Let’s see how that goes, shall we? Thematic preview? I’d say yes.